The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 6 More Training
After a day's rest we commenced the usual round of training and on the third morning so many men were picked from each platoon to go through a course, either of machine gun, or bombing and I found myself in a class for the latter. Unfortunately I had no choice or I should not have chosen such a dangerous job for there is always a certain amount of risk from our own bombs. After two or three days learning the parts and such like we went one morning to a deserted piece of ground in a large hollow, an old chalk pit, and after constructing a barricade of sandbags from which to throw behind we commenced to throw live Mill's Grenades into a big hole about 25 yards from the barricade. At first all went well, and I threw mine and returned to the rest of the classes who were taking cover from flying bits of shrapnel in a hollow about 20 yards behind the sand bags. Suddenly while two men were in the act of throwing with the Officer and Sergeant supervising behind them, one of the bombs exploded prematurely with the result that the Officer, Sergeant and two men of the bombing post were wounded and also one of those lying back with us. For the first moments we were stunned by the unexpectedness of the catastrophe but quickly regaining our self control we set to work to bandage the wounded. The one who suffered the worst was the one who had the bomb in his hand at the time, while all the other three at the post had 5 or 6 pieces in different parts of their body. The fifth only had one piece in his cheek but all the others were stretcher cases. We were told afterwards that the sergeant had died as a result of his injuries for which we were all very sorry for he was a very decent chap.
During the first week of the fortnight we were there we celebrated the first Anniversary of the 10th Battalion's arrival in France and a concert was given by the Mudlarks' who were the Divisional Concert Party. The second week of our training consisted of a series of attacks carried out on a set of trenches, the exact representation of those we were to take when the attack came off and for this we had to march about 8 kilometres (about 5 miles) every morning and during each of the seven days it rained cats and dogs. The very first day the cook houses had been ordered out so that we could have dinner before we returned, and about halfway through the morning just as we were going to start the sham attack it commenced to rain. Of course there was no cover of any sort and we did not have our waterproof sheets. Then as bombers we had to leave the company and go off down a trench supposed to be clearing it and when we had finished the battalion was about a mile away.
So we waited in the pouring rain, drenched to the skin until their return, but they did not return for finding it so wet they threw up the attack and marched home. At last, we espied some members of the band and machine gunners returning in the distance for the limbers and we attached ourselves to these, assisting them on the way home with their guns, to arrive, washed out and drenched to the skin some two hours later.
On the last day of this Divisional Training we were shown a display by the combined T.M.B. s of the Division, from whom they were expecting great things when the real attack came off. During this display one of the bombs exploded prematurely, killing one and wounding three of the crew. The display over we returned to the billets and some two days later commenced our march to the line. First of all we marched to St. Poe arriving early one morning after being on the move all night, and then we took train a few miles to continue our march next day, finally settling down at Bertrancourt, which was just within range of the enemy's guns and was occasionally shelled.
We expected now we had arrived at the scene of operations that we should be called upon any time to be ready to make the attack but some seven days after our arrival we were told we were to go up to bold the line for a few days. Next day, about 10 a.m. we set out and soon began to experience the first of the winter that was coming upon us for it was now October.
On the way up we had to pass a very muddy and holey road with result we got our feet soaked with mud and water and by the time we had reached our position in the reserve trench we were fairly crippled.
As there were no clean or dry socks to be had we had to have wet feet the whole of the three days we remained in the trench.
There was not a great deal of shelling but at times he put a few over in our vicinity, too near to be pleasant. Fatigues were few and chiefly at night.
When the three days were up the rest of the Battalion were relieved but we had to stay on until 9 o'clock that night as the relief could not be there before and so as we had sent the cook houses away we had to live on bully and biscuits for the day which was not very appetising for we had already been on short rations as the first day, Just as the cooks were preparing a meal after arrival, Fritz had dropped a shell on the whole concern and ruined the bacon and upset the tea, thus robbing us of our meal. It was nearly morning before anything could be got ready and by this time we were ready to eat anything.
Well, at last the relief arrived and we set off back to billets at Courcelle where we stayed the night, moving back to bus the next morning. Here we stayed for a considerable time, going to a training ground some four or five kilometres away, where we underwent the usual routine sometimes carrying out the attack as a battalion and sometimes as a Brigade.
The weather during this period was bad, and as a result the action was postponed indefinitely. For one week we were on fatigue at night carrying 60 lb. trench mortars from the dump up to various places near the line doing sometimes 2 or 3 journeys a night. This proved very hard work for the trenches were some 2-3 feet deep in mud in some places, not a great slog at ordinary times but weighted as we were with our load of 60 lb, it was as much as I could do to finish the journeys. Also it meant wet feet, not wet feet as a civilian knows them but sodden with mud and water, swollen so that once one's boots are off it is painful to put them on again.
When the fatigues were finished in the early morning, there was a journey back to billets of some 6 or 8 kilometres, no light journey with boots filled with liquid mud which oozed through the lace holes at every step. By the time the week of fatigues were finished everyone felt fairly knocked and the number of sick had increased 100% owing to an outbreak throughout the Battalion of diarrhoea brought on by the cold and wet. What with the weakening effect of this complaint and our strenuous exercise of the proceeding 7 days it was with difficulty that the majority managed to get through the parades.
For some time after this we returned to training again but on the 11th November we were ordered up the line to hold it for a few days. 1 should not have been going up on this occasion as I was selected for a Brigade course of bombing and so on the morning at 10 a.m. when the Battalion set off, I remained behind. Some three hours later we were surprised to see the Battalion march back, the orders having been countermanded when they had reached Courcelle. By this we knew the action had been fixed for the 13th November and so after one night's rest in peace and a certain amount of comfort, the last for some of them, we set off next morning to take, over the line for the purpose of the attack. I followed the Battalion up as 1 was selected with 3 others to do some detonating of bombs on arrival and we were under the charge of the Bombing Corporal.
When we reached the trenches he thought he knew a drier way up than that which the battalion had taken and took us up by way of Southern Avenue with the inevitable result that before we had gone very far we found ourselves up to our knees in sticky mud with no jack boots. These conditions lasted for a considerable time by which we could gladly have strafed the corporal who was responsible for the state we were in, and it was not until one o'clock that we succeeded in locating the dump and setting to work on the bombs. There were some 400 to be done and when we were finished we took a well earned rest in a nearby shelter while having something to eat and changing our soaking wet socks for a pair of dry ones which we carried in our fighting kit. Then refreshed we made our way about 6 p.m. to our various platoons whom we found resting in a deep dugout. Here we remained until 8.30 when we made our way up on top and under the guidance of the company officer were placed out between the lines in various shell holes in which we had to lie all night. This was not particularly pleasant for it was cold and sleep practically impossible, leaving us plenty of time to think over our probable fate and weigh our chances of coming through alive.
About 3.30 a.m. we were giver. some cold tea with just a smell of rum in it which was absolutely rotten. We should have had this about 12 midnight but the party who were bringing it lost their way.
An hour later we shifted this time to our final positions in the attack and as we were in reserve we took up cover behind a small hillock of chalk between our first and second line. Two companies were forming the first wave of the Battalion and these were in front of us.